Desert Wisdom V
Abba Daniel used to tell how when Abba Arsenius learned that all the varieties of fruit were ripe he would say, 'Bring me some.' He would taste a very little of each, just once, giving thanks to God.The desert fathers and mothers were often notoriously austere with their food. The unfortunately named 'Abba Arsenius' (accent on the -sen-!) was said to be able to survive on only a basket of bread a year.
Some have wondered whether such behaviour represented a form of anorexia caused by extreme hatred of the body. Indeed, many of the sayings of the desert hermits might lead us to think this.
And yet, as Christianity rightly understood celebrates bodily existence (after all Christians believe God chose to 'take on' a bodily existence as Jesus) such a treatment of the body could only be considered mistaken.
But could there be a more positive understanding of fasting in general? What value is there in the story Arsenius tasting a little bit of some of the ripe fruits and giving God thanks?
My own (small) experience of dietary austerity and, most useful of all, some time spent talking with a modern hermit, has lead me to wonder whether there might be a more positive way of seeing the fasting traditions.
To go without something, by choice and for a brief time, can be the avenue by which something taken for granted can become valued again. It is after all a truism that 'familiarity breeds contempt'.
Is that perhaps what Arsenius's little story tells us? While others might have taken for granted the plentiful harvest, did this desert-bound old man each year find the goodness of God in a few pieces of fruit?
As the global population for the first time now contains more obese persons than undernourished ones, I find myself wondering whether the human race now values the things that sustain it more - or less?